In a moment of, "I need to take a mindless break" a few days ago, I did what many Episcopal priests (and perhaps a few other liturgically-based clergy) do: I looked at vestments online. I just happened to be called to serve in a church that blends high fashion and prayer in one nifty place: church vestments. Vestments, like all fashion, has its highs (copes and maniples) and lows (cassock, surplice, stole); its ordinary (polyester blend) and fabulous (hand-embroidered silk); its absolutely stunning (Holy Rood) and its you should have let someone else with fashion sense select vesture. I, of course, found this glittering gold silk embroidered number complete with maniple. I decided it would look great with my snakeskin heels, but also figured there were better ways to spend money right now, as well. I did post it on my Facebook page to share, and wondered how long my other liturgically-oriented friends would take to notice the maniple.
Maniples, for those of you not so inclined to high church, are now ornamental vestments, worn only during the actual Mass by subdeacons, deacons, priests, and bishops on their left forearms. There are all sorts of rules about when it is and isn't worn that are neither here nor there for most of us, because most clergy I know have never worn one, nor would care to wear one. They are often strips of beautifully embroidered fabric with loops and bands to keep it on one's arm during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. It's almost fallen out of use, actually, probably with the advent of air conditioning, as it seems to have originally been a holy handkerchief, used to wipe sweat away or any wine that got spilled by clergy. Apparently, even ancient Christians frowned upon drops of sweat falling on the bread and wine. All of the clergy assisting at the holy meal wore it, like a really well-heeled maitre'd, to clean up any messes.
A friend of mine had a seminary professor who bewailed that the servant ministry of the ordained began dying when they quit wearing maniples. I'm not sure that the demise of clergy who remember and actively live their vows of service and obedience can be traced to the lack of a strip of fabric among vesture, but the prof recognized something - that we clergy types are indeed servants, holy waiters who prepare and serve the holy meal, who clean up messes when we can, even make a few every now and then. When we forget that, we lose part of our selves.
Being a servant isn't something most of us like. We might like the idea. If I had a dollar for every priest I've heard talk about "servant ministry," I could buy that chasuble I saw with money left over for two pair of new shoes. Watching the classic British miniseries, "Upstairs Downstairs" and its newer cousin, "Downtown Abbey," I see servant ministry in a more tangible way. The servants are the foundation of those homes with their cooking, cleaning, listening to the conversations, responding to what needs to be done - all while having their own lives. If you haven't seen either, they are worth a look. Our modern sensibilities are not so attune to the reality of servant hood because most of us have never seen servants. We've had the creative freedom to make servant hood as painless and fun as we'd like, rejecting the parts that don't work for us because we'd be more servant like and less boss. I wonder how many clergy would do as good of a job as the servants in, "Upstairs Downstairs." I wonder how many would see that work as beneath us, instead opting to be the bosses who live upstairs who quite unaware of the servants' work.
Servant ministry, like loving our enemies, sounds wonderful in theory, but in practice, it's God calling us to stretch and be uncomfortable. Servant ministry is about finding that place between making it not all about me, and not becoming a doormat to everyone. Servant ministry is about finding your own gifts and strengths in ministry while making space for others' gifts and strengths instead of bullying them into silence and exclusion. Servant ministry is about offering ourselves to God for guidance instead of offering ourselves to our own egos for validation. Servant ministry is hard and even awkward (like celebrating with a maniple). Having our work often go unseen isn't fun, but good servants and their works are unseen in many ways.
As are maniples. When worn with a chasuble, they blend in. Celebrating with one requires a bit more attention, lest you whack the chalice with the band of silk and really have a mess to clean up. But even if we do, that's okay, because good servants know how to clean up elegantly, as well.